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What's New In Suspension Fencing
By Heather Smith Thomas
Suspension fences have been used on western farms and ranches for several decades, and also in New Zealand and Australia for many years. Advantages to suspension fencing include fewer posts (an advantage in rocky terrain where it may be difficult or impossible to set posts in certain locations along a fence, and also means less labor for installation and maintenance), more resilience when struck by animals or vehicles and therefore less damage to the fence from wildlife or highway accidents. The posts can be set wider apart, with several lightweight stays between them.

Southwest Fence Systems and Southwest Fence and Supply Company, Inc. have been working for several decades to improve suspension fencing and are leaders in this field. According to Chris Hanneken, president, the unique braces and lightweight stays make their fencing highly durable while minimizing maintenance. The Hanneken family developed the first product line in the 1970’s, originally as a means to create better fencing on their own ranches in the South. Today their system is being used throughout the country, not only on private farms and ranches but also by county and state municipalities, oilfields, the Nature Conservancy, USDOT (US Department of Transportation), EBRPD (East Bay Regional Park District), NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service), SFWD (San Francisco Water District), LADWP (Los Angeles Department of Water and Power), and many other entities.

Studies have been ongoing to find the most effective and least expensive methods and materials for suspension fencing. Early suspension fences were constructed using wooden stays, which provided good visibility to livestock and wildlife but were labor intensive and costly to install, partly because of their weight and the additional freight expenses. Researchers in Georgia then tried metal twist stays but those provided poor visibility and were not always easy to install. The twist stays were also easily bent by wildlife hitting the fence or going under or over it, leaving the stays permanently bent. Bent stays compromise the height or positioning of the wires and the effectiveness of a fence to hold livestock—and are almost impossible to remove once they are bent.

Hanneken says their SuperStay © is more durable and resilient and tends to last much longer. At first, during the mid-1970’s, they created stays made of break-formed sheet metal, and later a roll-formed steel. That product had advantages over other stays in terms of cost, visibility and ease of installation, but lacked resilience. More than 20 years ago they developed the SuperStay © in an extruded HDPE form, which worked even better in accomplishing all the goals for their True Suspension Fence ™, and this enabled the company to provide a lifetime guarantee.

The latest design is a similar product, but created with an injection mold process, providing a stronger and more consistent profile. Other improvements to this stay include added reinforcement near the attachment lock-pin notches (there’s a lock pin for easy installation which is also effective for electric fence) and more visibility. Another plus is that this stay is made in the USA from recycled material. The SuperStay © is also widely used for rejuvenating old fences and making quick repairs.

Posts for the suspension fence can be metal or wood, set anywhere from 16 feet apart from center to center to 50 feet (30 feet is the average distance). “This allows the fence to give and flex without compromise. Along a highway, cars often go through a fence. We have constant problems in highly populated areas where commuters travel county roads, with vehicles going through fences,” says Hanneken. When you consider liability issues when cattle get out on a road, especially in regions that don’t have an open range law, suspension fences are safest. It’s important that a rancher use fencing that won’t be torn down completely--or cattle may get out on the highway and cause accidents.

Traditional fences usually won’t stay standing enough to hold livestock after a vehicle crashes through them—taking out posts and knocking the fence down. “We’ve found that cars can hit our suspension style fence and often the fence will stay up enough to contain the animals until repairs can be made. Even if they knock out a post and there’s an 80-foot section of unsupported fence, the wires generally will not break, and the fence will still be in place, and will still hold cattle,” says Hanneken.

Snow is another factor that can be hard on fences. Heavy snow tends to weight down traditional or electric fencing and may break wires or push a fence over. Freezing and thawing can also disrupt the stability of traditional posts and braces, as frost heaves the posts upward. After a few years the posts and braces may not stay in line or may come out of the ground. Concrete or railroad ties rarely stay in place in an area where frost or moisture levels rise and fall during the year.

“The bracing system is the key to our suspension fence. It was designed to withstand freezing and thawing. Our braces utilize a diagonal rod similar to the anchor system on modular homes. This is where we got the idea. No suspension system can be successful without a good brace. We needed something simple, that anyone could put in,” says Hanneken.

His family developed a permanent type of driven brace, which is quick and foolproof to install, without having to dig post holes. In good ground it can be put in place within 15 minutes, and installs one way only—which eliminates the chance of placing it incorrectly. The fence can be stretched as soon as the brace is installed.

“The two brace posts are driven into the ground, and there’s a guide tube on each post that is cut and welded into that post at a 45 degree angle,” says Henneken. “After you’ve driven the post into the ground to the depth of the guide tube, you put the anchor rod through the post (via the guide tube), drive it into the ground and bolt it in place. In updating our patent, we have lengthened the brace (to eliminate the uplift effect) and this angled rod gives it even more stability,” he says.

The Parker Ranch in Kamuela, Hawaii installed the Southwest Fence suspension system 23 years ago, in 1987, and this fence has remained effective with virtually no maintenance.

The stays in a suspension fence can be any material, but if the stays come clear down to the ground it is not truly a suspension fence. “Our black poly SuperStays © are light and only come down to the bottom wire, so the fence is floating free between posts,” says Hanneken. This makes a better suspension system because it has a lot more give if an animal or car hits it.

One advantage to the stays manufactured by Southwest Fence Systems is that they are lightweight and durable. This product can also be used with multi-strand smooth electric fencing. “Horse ranches find this very effective. With the stay being HDPE (high density polyethylene), this works nicely. The first stays we made were steel, but they weren’t resilient enough and would bend and stay bent. We’ve now had poly stays in 40-foot wire gates that have probably had 1000 or more trucks run over them when the gates were laid down, and they are still performing. You can’t do that with metal stays,” he explains.

A study at Texas A&M found suspension fences were ideal for bulls pastures because bulls were less apt to rub on these fences. The whipping action of the fence—bouncing back at them when they rub on it—helps create a more effective psychological barrier.

The whole idea of a suspension fence is to be flexible and resilient. “It won’t be successful, however, without a good brace. So we came up with a bracing system that would be part of the fence,” explains Hanneken. “It had to be something you could pick up at any farm supply store, and drive into the ground. There is a lot of good equipment available today for driving posts. There’s no way this type of brace will fail, unless you don’t drive the posts deep enough,” he says.

Buddy Simmons, Executive Vice President of Southwest Fence and Supply Company says the SuperStay © today is greatly improved over the previous versions. “One big plus is greater visibility. This is a tremendous deterrent for animals; if cattle and wildlife can see the fence they are less apt to crash through it. They can see this stay a lot better than they can see a twisted wire stay,” he says.

“Stays have evolved and changed a lot over the years. Many people have used the twisted wire stays, but these are now an antiquated product. They compromise a fence once they become bent, and you usually need bolt cutters to get them off so you can replace them. They are almost impossible to take out once they are bent,” he says.

Almost any type of gate will work with the braces. Hanneken designed a latch system for a wire gate that can keep a barbed wire gate taut. The gate does not get saggy or become hard to open and close.

“The new technology in wire—and improvements in tensile strength and durability—makes it to where traditional bracing may be inadequate,” says Simmons. “Our Southwest Super Stockmen’s Brace System © is the only patented, certified and engineered brace system for agricultural fencing. We did years and years of research and work with our brace, and field-testing. In these tests, this brace is stronger than that of the new wire technology, so these braces will always hold. If you’re using the new high tensile 14 gauge green wire (much higher strength than the old, softer, high-carbon wire), this brace exceeds the test for pulling that wire. This is so important, for the foundation of your fence,” he explains.

“Most brace systems are not engineered; they are just a type of brace that people have been using for years and years so they continue using it, and they don’t realize the wire technology has passed up the strength of the brace,” he says.

His company recently built an 8-foot high net wire game fence in Hawaii for the US Department of Transportation, along a road. “The USDOT adopted our brace system for this type of fence, and it works well. Tensile strength of our 8-foot fence is tremendous, yet we easily pulled miles and miles of fencing from our braces because they are so solid. The strength of this product is backed up by years of use. You can drive around the country and look at our fences, and see that they stand straight; the braces stay in place. With the suspension fence, it is incredible how straight it stays over the years. You don’t have posts moving all the time,” says Simmons.

The basic fence is engineered for a brace every quarter of a mile, and line posts approximately every 40 feet. By contrast, traditional fencing requires posts every 8 to 12 feet if there are no stays. “A suspension fence can work with posts every 16 to 50 feet, using stays in between. If the fence comes down a steep slope, as long as it’s on the same plane, this spacing works,” says Hanneken. If it goes over a hump or through a gully, however, the spacing may have to be closer, with a sturdy stress post at the top of the hump.

Suspension fence using the SuperStay © is less expensive to install than traditional fences that utilize T-posts in between wood posts. “The other advantage is that our stays take about 30 seconds to put on, while a T-post may take several minutes—or longer, in rocky or hard ground—plus the time it takes to put the clips on,” he says.

NOTE: Southwest Fence Systems manufactures and distributes the product and Southwest Fence and Supply Company, Inc. is an installation/construction company as well as being a complete ranch/facility/design consulting firm. For more information, contact:
Chris Hanneken at 925-200-6566
Buddy Simmons (Executive Vice President, Southwest Fence & Supply Company, Inc.)
209-892-9205 or 925-337-0774 (cell)
www.swfence.com


COMMENTS FROM A RANCHER/FARMER/FENCE BUILDER
Terry Andrade (a rancher at Council, Idaho who also has a farm, ranch and feedlot at Homedale, a ranch at Preston and a ranch in California) has a fencing business and also raises bucking bulls. “I’ve used the materials and fencing systems that Southwest Fence Company produces, on many occasions. I have a lot of experience with this suspension fence; I find it easy to install and it stands the test of time and any weather conditions,” says Andrade.

“I use their materials because I feel they’re superior to anything else out there. Wildlife are very hard on traditional fences. We have a 10,000 ranch near Preston, Idaho. Deer go under or over the top of a fence, but elk and moose are a different story: moose just walk through it,” he says.

“Cattle don’t do near the damage to a fence that elk and moose do, and they don’t do as much damage as Mother Nature does (heavy snow, moisture, frost heaves, etc.). This is one reason we use green-coated wire in this system. It’s 30 percent stronger, with higher tensile strength, and lasts a long time. On my ranch in Preston we put up 17 miles of this fence 2 years ago. The better and stronger you can build a fence, the longer it will last.”

Some people use lay-down fences, to keep them from being damaged by snow or wildlife when cattle aren’t in those pastures. This works nicely, with a good suspension fence. “On our ranch at Preston, we have areas we lay a fence down to get away from the cause and effect of nature and wildlife damage. We use the stress posts as tie off posts and make a loop on the fence so we can drive along the fence on a 4-wheeler and take the top loop off, slide the stay out of the bottom loop, and lay the fence down,” says Andrade.

“In mid-May, my wife and I put a lay-down fence back up again, setting up 3.5 miles of it in about 3 hours. This would normally take 2 men about 3 days, to put a traditional fence back up again. We build all our fences on a pad, so we can drive along them with a 4-wheeler or vehicle. In the fall, my wife and I lay the fence back down. One person drives and the other unloops the ties. When we put it back up in the spring we can stretch it from the corners and in-line braces,” he explains. The stays remain attached to the fence and lie on the ground, and are not damaged by moisture.

When you build the fence the first time, it’s cheaper to use stays instead of T-posts. At about $7.50 per T-post and 3 T-posts between line posts, you are replacing $22.50 of materials with $6 worth of stays. Regarding labor to put them in, you are looking at 9 minutes (minimum time for 3 T-posts) versus about 90 seconds for the stays. This is a big savings on materials and labor.

The steel braces are quick and easy to put in. “With 2 men, using a hydraulic driver, we can install a corner 3 post brace in rocky terrain in about an hour. By contrast, if you use railroad ties to build a brace, you have to dig the post holes and set them, and a corner brace takes several hours to build,” says Andrade.

“We’re often putting fences through areas with lava rock or sedimentary rock. After we pound these metal posts (nearly 3 inch diameter) in the ground, they are solid, and won’t come out. You don’t have to get them below frost line; they won’t heave and float up out of the ground—which is a major issue with a wood brace. In Idaho where frost goes down 3 feet or more, or in Montana where it may go even deeper, if you put a railroad tie in, the next year it may be 6 inches up out of the ground, and the following year another 6 inches, and soon you don’t have a functional brace anymore,” he says.

“Maintenance is big issue in fencing. When you get ready to turn cows out in our country, you don’t want to have to spend several weeks going around fences to fix them. You want a good fenceline you can walk or drive along and make minor repairs and turn the cows out. Our experience is that this suspension fence gives you major savings, over time,” he says.

Fire is another factor to consider, in many parts of the West. The new wire is more durable, and the metal braces don’t burn up like wood brace posts. “When I built the 17 miles of new fence on our ranch at Preston, Idaho, it was because we had a 55,000 acre fire that burned our ranch in entirety, including the fences. Heat destroys the old type of wire because it becomes brittle and can’t be re-used. When I built the new fence, I put in suspension fence because if our ranch burns again the braces will still be there and this wire can withstand heat much better. The poly stays will burn, but they can be replaced with minimal cost and labor.”

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